The case for re-opening schools, partway

I don’t envy school officials right now. They have to weigh two horrible possibilities …

  1. Keeping kids at home, where they’re falling behind their peers (particularly in underserved communities) and suffering mental health issues, including a greater risk of suicide. For a longer list of lifelong problems incurred by school closures, see this NPR story, especially the last six paragraphs.)
  2. Bringing kids into school amid concerns of spreading COVID-19.

Fortunately, evidence to help them make better decisions is mounting …

Studies on school transmission

The news is pretty good.

South Korea: “Jeong and other researchers said schools are not a high-risk setting for Covid-19 transmission, while hinting that school closures might have caused more harm than good.” (Jan. 21, Korea JoongAng Daily)

Duke/UNC: 32 cases of in-school transmission among nearly 100,000 people. ““Our data indicate that schools can reopen safely if they develop and adhere to specific SARS-CoV-2 prevention policies.” (Jan. 8, AAP)

Sweden: “Despite Sweden’s having kept schools and preschools open, we found a low incidence of severe Covid-19 among schoolchildren and children of preschool age during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.” (Jan. 6, New England Journal of Medicine)

Norway: “Studies from several European countries have shown minimal transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from paediatric index cases in schools [37]. However, the majority of these studies did not consider asymptomatic infections and did not screen all contacts. Our study confirms and strengthens these data, as we found minimal transmission even with a prospective design and systematic testing of all contacts twice during quarantine.” (Jan. 7, Eurosurveillance)

Germany: “Johannes Huebner, the head of the pediatric infectious disease department at the Ludwig-Maximilians University Hospital in Munich, recently told NPR correspondent Rob Schmitz that scientific studies have not detected high rates of transmission in schools. ‘Most of the infections are brought into the schools by adults, by teachers, and then spread among kids. But most of the time, it’s only single cases. It’s two, three kids, five maybe that get positive.'” (Nov. 13, NPR story on Europe leaving schools open)

Various (dated but thorough): “Data collected globally have previously shown that schools can reopen safely when community transmission is low. But even in places where community infections were on the rise, outbreaks in schools were uncommon, particularly when precautions were taken to reduce transmission.” (Oct. 29, Nature)

Global (but dated): “In most infections or COVID-19 cases reported in children, infection was acquired at home.” (Oct. 21, WHO)

Studies on asymptomatic transmission

The news is less good, and it’s a reminder that safety precautions must be taken and testing should be frequent.

Austria: More data that asymptomatic kids may spread the disease, but note some shaky claims in this story, notion that the UK made no progress with a lockdown. The UK in general hasn’t had the best response. (Jan. 15, Der Spiegel)

UK: “There is evidence to suggest that people who don’t display symptoms of Covid-19 may have lower viral loads, which means they are less likely to infect others.” The story goes into detail about rapid testing. (Jan. 2, The Guardian/The Observer)

Current COVID-19 rates

Bad, but dropping after the holiday surge.

Global: Mitigation works. (Jan. 23, Our World in Data)

USA:The backlogs appear to be largely behind us, and the underlying trends are moving in the right direction for most of the country. Even for the states experiencing the worst outbreaks, we are seeing early indications that the rates of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are easing, though some areas are still reporting dangerously high case and hospitalization levels and wrenching death rates.” (Jan. 21, COVID Tracking Project)

Safety measures

Masks: Duh.

Vaccines: “Pfizer and Moderna together have pledged to deliver 200 million doses by the end of March.” Of course, the devil’s in the details in making sure teachers get priority. (Jan. 23, The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Quick, frequent testing: “With $20 billion, Mina argues, the government could build four factories that produce enough antigen tests to stop most outbreaks in the country. That may sound like a lot of money, but it’s just 1 percent of the COVID-19 stimulus package, the CARES Act.” That’s an indictment of the Trump regime, but it’s also an example of what schools can do with testing. (Nov. 20, The Atlantic)

Treatment: The global medical community doesn’t get enough credit for what it’s done to improve treatment over a short period of time (Nov. 14, Spectrum News and Sept. 20, NPR). Several new medications moved forward in October and November, and a study this month shows convalescent plasma (which I’ve donated twice) is helpful (Jan. 13, Harvard). We still need to know more about long-term effects for those of us who’ve survived — personally, I’m not sure my lung capacity has recovered, though I’m also getting older.

Quarantine: Spring Break could be a problem if people are traveling. This is merely a suggestion, and it may not be feasible, but would a quarantine help?

Bottom line

On the personal level, forcing people back to school is a bad idea, though I’d hope all the information above convinces more people that it’s safe.

The only question left is the issue of collective responsibility. We ask people to wear masks so that they won’t spread the disease, even to those who are taking precautions, and overwhelm our hospitals.

Based on the information above, the chances of schools adding to overwhelmed hospitals seems slim, particularly if all the right precautions are taken. Running schools at half capacity by alternating students helps with social distancing. Requiring masks is a no-brainer, and we should all keep an eye on the evolving guidance on what kind of masks we should be using. We should also test often — two quick tests that are 85% accurate are better than one test that’s 90% and takes longer to process.

Face-to-face meetings with teachers and peer interaction are so important. I can’t see any reason we shouldn’t be planning to open partway in March, when rates will have dropped farther and more people will be vaccinated, and all the way this fall.

We can do this. And we need to.

My college courses, if I could do it all over

Duke was a great experience for me … apart from the classes.

Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. I had some great teachers, but I had a lot of lousy ones. The academic advising wasn’t great except within the music department, from which I think I could have had many recommendations for grad school had I gone in that direction.

And it’s unfair to look back with regret in comparison to what Duke offers today. Duke now has minors or certificates that I don’t believe they offered in the past.

So the modern-day Duke experience is surely better for all. I hope the teachers are better. I know the course selection is better.

Let’s break down what I took …

WHAT I TOOK

Philosophy major

One note here: I only took two of the required eight classes by the end of sophomore year, when you’re supposed to declare. At the time, everything seemed fine. The classes were fine, and I had couple of solid B-pluses that I figured I’d pull up to As down the road. If I’d taken a third (not counting logic), maybe I would’ve realized this wasn’t for me.

  • Intro to Philosophy: required, and I had a good grad-student teacher
  • History of Ancient Philosophy: required, another good teacher (Michael Ferejohn)
  • Logic – required, easy A, took it in the summer with the late, great Rick Roderick, called “the Bill Hicks of philosophy”
  • History of Modern Philosophy – required, difficult. I made a C. Again, if I’d taken it sophomore year, maybe I wouldn’t have majored in this
  • History of Law – I fancied myself pre-law. This class, with a pipe-smoking drone teaching, may have talked me out of it. Had a solid B before I screwed up the final because I was desperately studying for the final in …
  • Symbolic Logic – This was a ****ing math class. A bunch of math majors were taking it to meet their humanities requirement. I sat there on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, not comprehending in the least what was being written on the board and not able to ask afterwards because I had a Chronicle budget meeting. Frankly, that was a better priority. No one in journalism cares that I made a C-plus in this class and probably should’ve done worse.
  • Philosophy of Music – Very cool class with another late, great professor in Ben Ward, whom I had met in my freshman dorm, where he lived as an Artist in Residence and frequently played his grand piano. I did a terrific final project on cassette, using audio clips to illustrate my points. One of two classes I took in my last semester while I was pulling about 50 hours a week at The Chronicle.
  • Plato – a 200-level class was required, and this was hard-core. I’d registered for a class on Hegel with Rick Roderick, but he had to change the time and day of the class, and I couldn’t make it. I quickly scrambled over to Dr. Ferejohn’s office. He said he remembered me from History of Ancient Philosophy (he probably didn’t) and would gladly sign off on my switch to this class. I’ll always be proud of the fact that I got an A-minus in a class that required serious scholarship in a seminar with a bunch of grad students.

Music major

  • Fundamentals of Music Theory: I hadn’t planned to be a music major, but I took this on a whim in my first semester and didn’t flinch when I discovered it had a lab component and didn’t give credit for it, unlike those wimps in science classes who get an extra credit for being lab. Rodney Wynkoop and my classmates encouraged me to keep going. I was hooked.
  • Tonal Harmony: Basically the second semester of theory, another class with Rodney, another solid A.
  • Modal Counterpoint: Considered the organic chemistry of the music major, with complex math involved. Started to sour on things here.
  • Tonal Counterpoint: Still difficult, but I liked this better and did better.
  • Composition: Took concurrently with Tonal Counterpoint. A two-person class — me and Joe Zellnik. Joe is a brilliant composer to this day. I’m not. Enjoyed it and learned a lot, but I realized my limitations.
  • Percussion (three semesters): Music majors have to study an instrument, and I enjoyed this quite a bit. Still playing drums to this day. Can’t store a tympani set at home, unfortunately.
  • Chamber Music (percussion ensemble): Thanks to the people who formed a percussion ensemble with me. This was fun.
  • Four freaking semesters of Music History: You don’t even get to Bach for a few months. Oddly enough, my lowest grade (B+) was in Music History III, which covered my favorite era of classical music. I think. I never listen to classical any more, and no, Music History IV didn’t cover the Beatles. 

Requirements

  • University Writing Course: Salem Witchcraft: I will one day sarcastically dedicate a book to the grad student who gave me inconsistent instructions and gave me a C-minus. I didn’t choose the topic, but I found it interesting. I also apparently contradicted the grad student’s thesis. I like to think I was right. 
  • History of Civilization: Intro to Art History: a backup choice in my first semester, and it couldn’t have gone worse. I took this after a PE class, so I raced from the PE buildings to the West Campus bus stop and immediately went into a dark room to look at slides. Along with the UWC above, I had really bad grades in my first semester and spent the rest of my time at Duke climbing into the middle of my class.
  • Empirical Natural Science: Astronomy – not bad, not exactly Neil deGrasse Tyson.
  • Foreign language requirement: Met with my achievement test in French, even though I couldn’t speak it to save my life.
  • LiteratureAP credit FTW, which is good, because I might have lost my mind in a Duke English class.

“Division II”

Not really sure what the “divisions” entailed, but we had to pick one in which we took four classes, one of them at the 100 level (at the time, slightly advanced — 200-level classes were for a mix of seniors and grad students). All I know is that I took a lot of history.

  • Two semesters of American history: AP credit FTW
  • Germany: 30 Years’ War-1871: Great professor in Claudia Koonz, who’s actually kind of controversial (I didn’t know Historikerinnenstreit was a word). The subject matter was kind of dull, but I learned how to do longer papers, which helped down the road.
  • Socialism and Communism: Blow-off summer class with Warren Lerner, who literally wrote the book on the subject. Not bad, and I don’t know why I only got a B-plus.

“Division III” 

I guess I needed two classes in another area of concentration, so I chose math and science-ish?

  • Calculus I: AP credit FTW
  • Calculus II: Grad student who struggled with English and didn’t get through all the material. This is on Duke. They should’ve done better. I actually didn’t need to take this. And I shouldn’t have. There’s no need to take second-semester calculus unless you’re going into engineering or something similar. See below.
  • Fundamentals of Computer Science: I didn’t think it was supposed to be an easy course, but when I saw a bunch of football and basketball players, I figured it might be pretty simple. It was indeed very easy, though we AGAIN didn’t get extra credit for the lab, but I learned quite a bit.

Electives

  • Three semesters of PE – Badminton/Racquetball/Squash, Endurance Swimming, Racquetball: Two of these were for fun. The third was gaming the system. You can’t apply more than two PE classes to your total number of credits for graduation, but I was way ahead on credits, anyway. The problem was that I wasn’t allowed to take an underload, and percussion was only a half-credit. So I took the third semester to give myself a full load, even though it didn’t count toward graduation. Loved the racquet sports. Hated swimming in a freezing pool.
  • Comedy: Theory & Performance – One of the freshman seminars offered second semester, and I was lucky to get my first choice. I ditched what the writing instructor had tried to teach me and went back to my old writing style. A LOT of reading dating back to Aristophanes, but I didn’t mind at all. The A-minus restored my faith in my writing ability. 
  • Advanced Intermediate French: I did OK, but I STILL can’t speak French.
  • Chemistry and Society: People joke about this, ranking it alongside “Physics for Poets.” Yeah, it was easy. So what? I learned more from this than I would’ve learned in a lab, suckers.
  • American Political System: Figured I needed another pre-law-ish class. Lecturer was pretty good, as was the TA who taught my breakout group. 
  • Introductory Psychology: Awesome, and not just because it was an easy A. Wonderful class to take in a breezy summer term.
  • Organismal/Environmental Biology: My dad was a biochemist, so maybe YOU were wrong on that test, grad students. 

So what did I like or find worthwhile?

  • Philosophy: Intro, Logic, 200-level
  • Music: Theory (2 semesters), Percussion, Composition
  • Science-ish: Computer Science, Psychology, Chemistry and Society
  • Humanities: Comedy

That’s it? Roughly 11 classes, adding together a couple of half-classes of percussion?

Yikes. Let’s try again …


WHAT I WOULD TAKE TODAY

I wouldn’t major in philosophy. I wouldn’t major in music, but the music minor (not available in those days, and yes, I love the fact that music has major and minor) appeals to me. I almost completed what you’d call a history minor today, but I don’t think I’d do that, either. (I loved my grad-school history classes, though.)

There’s no journalism major, nor would I take one. I could get a journalism certificate, which means I’d have a major, a minor (music) and a certificate. A major has at least 10 courses (12 plus an internship in Public Policy), a minor has at least five, and the journalism certificate has six. Yikes.

But it would make more sense for me to major in public policy, which offers a “policy journalism” concentration. (Or, as the Public Policy department calls it because they just have to be different, a pathway.) That would give me the flexibility to take journalism as far as I could and then bail into something useful like law. Besides, the certificate would require me to take “News as a Moral Battleground,” which doesn’t seem fun.

You can only apply two AP courses toward the 34 needed to graduate, though AP courses can knock out specific requirements. That’s four per semester, but I may do some extra stuff to give myself a chance to take an underload junior year to be Chronicle editor. Or managing editor — Matt probably would’ve been editor, as he was in real life.

Miscellaneous requirements: There’s overlap between the “Areas of Knowledge” (must meet five) and the “Modes of Inquiry” (six) — the same class can count for both. I’ll list the Areas and note which Modes are met along the way. I’d also need one seminar class freshman year (no problem), two more “small group learning experiences.”

The “Modes” are: Cross-Cultural Inquiry, Ethical Inquiry, Science/Technology/Society, Foreign Language, Research, Writing. All require two classes except Foreign Language (see below) and Writing (two in addition to the dreaded UWC).

I’m assuming classes for the major and minor count toward the Areas and Modes. If not, I basically wouldn’t have any electives outside the requirements.

Finally, two things I’d really want to do — take a stats course (required in public policy) and do an internship (also required in PPS).

Public policy major, basic requirements (9)

  • Introduction to Policy Analysis
  • Political Analysis for Public Policy: OK, maybe this is getting dull. (Writing mode)
  • Policy Choice as Value Conflict: I can sub in Global Health Ethics but probably wouldn’t (Ethical Inquiry mode)
  • Microeconomic Policy Tools: OR Intermediate Microeconomics I
  • Economics of the Public Sector: Typically taken senior year. Great.
  • Data Analysis and Statistical Inference: OR Probability and Statistical Inference. (Research and STS modes)
  • History: I’d have to choose from the list linked here. I’d lean toward the sports history class.
  • Internship: Apparently, Duke can now pretty much place people in journalism internships. Wasn’t so easy in my day. You have to take all “core” courses (the first five above) before doing this, so this would likely be between junior and senior year.
  • Independent studyAll sorts of possibilities here. In real life, I did a history of objectivity in American journalism in grad school.

Public policy electives / Policy Journalism pathway (4)

Four electives required for the major, all above 160 level, one at 400 level or higher. The pathway requirements aren’t really clear. I think this list is just suggestions. Hope so, because I’d really want to take the first three listed here, and none is 400 level. Bear in mind that my independent study would probably be journalism-related.

Some of my other electives farther below (Oral History, Data Visualization) would be journalism-related.

  • News Writing & Reporting: I’ve never considered myself a good reporter. Writer, yes. Gleaning info from data, yes. Reporter, no. This would help. I hope. (Research and Writing modes)
  • Journalism in the Age of Data: Gotta learn data. (STS mode)
  • The Art of the Interview: Cross-listed with Documentary Studies. 
  • Environmental Politics: Meets the 400+ requirement.

Music minor (6, including one from a set of electives and two above 213-level)

  • Theory and Practice of Tonal Music I: Required; basically my freshman theory course.
  • Music History III (Beethoven through WWI): Yes! Only ONE of these is required! (CCI and Research mode!)
  • Percussion (two semesters, each 0.5 credits): Fills performance requirement.
  • History of Rock: My choice from the set of electives. 
  • Writing about Music: Everything is journalism. Above 213-level. (Writing mode)
  • Theory and Practice of Tonal Music II: Sure, why not. Above 213-level
  • Could also take Wind Symphony and/or Marching Band for credit just to nickel-and-dime my way to a full class load.

General requirements (3)

  • University Writing Course: As long as I have permission to change teachers
  • Intermediate French Language and Culture: My achievement test (SAT II) score and AP score put me here. To meet the Foreign Language mode, you have to take three classes OR a 300-level course. (Duke has renumbered everything so that 100-levels are intros.) This is 200-level, so …
  • French for Current Affairs: Also meets seminar requirement and CCI mode.

That’s already 22 classes. For the Areas below, the number of parentheses is the number of credits I’ll get outside my major and minor. For example, I knock out Area 1 with my music minor, but I’ll also have an AP credit.

Area of Knowledge 1: Arts, Literature and Performance (1 non-major class)

  • English literature: AP all the way
  • (Music): Yeah, it’s covered.

Area of Knowledge 2: Civilizations (2)

  • American history: I could theoretically use both AP credits to take care of this. But I’d like to take another history, anyway.
  • Introduction to Oral History: Loved my oral history class in grad school. Would also meet my freshman seminar requirement IF I got into it first semester because it’s fall-only. (Research mode, seminar)

Area of Knowledge 3: Natural Sciences (2)

  • Chemistry, Technology and Society: It still exists! (STS mode)
  • Intro to Psychology: I can meet the Natural Sciences requirement with this? Oh, hell yeah! (STS mode)

Area of Knowledge 4: Quantitative Studies (2)

  • Foundations of Data Science: Computer Science class (STS mode)
  • Data Visualization: Found it on the journalism list.

Area of Knowledge 5: Social Sciences (2)

  • (Most of the Public Policy courses could meet this requirement)
  • Fantasy, Mass Media, and Popular Culture: Cultural Anthropology, cross-listed elsewhere, not always offered. Could also meet Civilization requirement, but I’ve got that covered (CCI mode)
  • Gateway Seminar – How to Do History: History department. (Ethical Inquiry and Research mode, seminar)

That’s 31 courses. I could only apply two of the three AP credits (calculus, English, American history) toward that total, so make it 30.

Four more …

Electives: 

  • Everything Data: 200-level computer science course; might be tough without a 200-level math. Could meet Qualitative requirement
  • Ethics and Philosophy of Sport: 300-level! (Ethical Inquiry and Writing modes)
  • Introduction to Philosophy: Could meet Civilizations requirement. (Writing mode)
  • PE: Can count two classes, each a half-credit. I’m thinking Tai Chi and tennis. They don’t do racquetball any more! 

So not much problem covering the Areas. Music and Public Policy knock out two of them, most history classes would take care of Civilizations, my two Natural Science classes are two that I actually took and enjoyed, and I’d take a couple of data-related courses to take care of Qualitative. I wouldn’t mind taking one more Arts course if they won’t let me count my music classes there.

Let’s make sure I’ve taken care of the Modes:

  • Cross-Cultural Inquiry: Music History III, French for Current Affairs, Fantasy/Mass Media/Pop Culture. Wow, little margin for error.
  • Ethical Inquiry: How to Do History, Ethics/Philosophy of Sports. Only two? Good think I’m taking the sports one!
  • Science/Technology/Society: All data and Natural Science classes. Easy.
  • Foreign Language: See above.
  • Research: I count five.
  • Writing: Too many to count.

So I’d consider that an improvement, though I’m a little iffy on some of those Public Policy classes.

 

 

 

 

 

The actual divide in this country, illustrated

Forget rural vs. urban. Forget left vs. right. Forget rich vs. poor (both of which have been convinced to vote against their self-interests, anyway).

Here’s the divide in this country:

Duke course catalog, Statistics 642:

Statistical models for modeling, monitoring, assessing and forecasting time series. Univariate and multivariate dynamic models; state space modeling approaches; Bayesian inference and prediction; computational methods for fast data analysis, learning and prediction; time series decomposition; dynamic model and time series structure assessment. Routine use of statistical software for time series applications. Applied studies motivated by problems and time series data from a range of applied fields including economics, finance, neuroscience, climatology, social networks, and others. Instructor consent required.

TV listing for third-rated cable show in 18-49 demographic for June 21:

Sonja’s love triangle gets more complicated as things heat up with “Frenchie.” Meanwhile, Tinsley goes apartment hunting. Carole and Adam bicker over items he left behind in her apartment. Fredrik and Bethenny look over her apartment as they plan to put it on the market. Carole and Dorinda go to Washington DC for the Women’s March. Ramona throws a party at her apartment with a surprising guest list.

 

 

Duke majors today

Looked up a few things on colleges today and found an interesting stat — the number of degrees Duke conferred in 2015-16 by major. I’m not sure how it accounts for double majors, but either way, it’s an interesting stat.

My two majors are in bold.

First, by category:

325 Biological/Biomedical Sciences
312 Social Sciences
271 Engineering (+2 in “Engineering Technology and Engineering-Related Fields”)
158 Public Policy, etc.
139 Health Professions (all nursing)
109 Psychology
94 Computer and Information Sciences
63 Physical Sciences
61 Mathematics and Statistics
  43 Visual and Performing Arts
43 Education
41 History
40 Natural Resources and Conservation
37 Foreign Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics
34 English Language and Literature
20 Philosophy and Religious Studies
18 Area, Ethnic, Gender, Cultural and Group Studies

Now, by major:

180 Economics
176 Biology
158 Public Policy
139 Nursing (I *think* this is a separate school)
109 Psychology (this surprises me)
99 Bioengineering/Biomedical Engineering
93 Computer Science (+1 in “Computer and Information Science, Other”)
89 Electrical and Electronics Engineering
87 Neuroscience
71 Mechanical Engineering
69 Political Science
55 Anatomy
43 International and Comparative Education
40 Environmental Studies
39 History (+2 in “History, Other”)
38 Math
36 Chemistry
34 English
33 Sociology
30 Anthropology
23 Statistics
23 “Visual and Performing Arts, Other” (??? +2 in “Visual and Performing Arts, General”)
20 Physics
  13 Philosophy
12 Civil Engineering
10 Area Studies
9 French
8 Foreign Languages, General
7 Biophysics
7 Geological and … look, we’re just saying “Geology”
7 Religion
6 Art History
6 Spanish
5 Drama (and other words)
5 Linguistics
5 Classics
    5 Music
5 Women’s Studies
3 African Studies
2 Environmental Engineering
2 Romance Languages
2 Russian
2 Dance

So my majors aren’t very popular. And my master’s degree isn’t that much more popular — 26, just two more than East Asian Studies.

Did I waste my college opportunity?

In two months, if all goes well and schedule permits, I will attend my 25-year reunion at Duke.

I never really wanted to go anywhere else for college. In high school, I had a list of schools that mildly interested me. But my junior year, the Athens Academy college tour swung through Duke, and I fell in love. (With the school. And maybe the tour guide.) I only applied to two schools — Duke and Virginia. For the latter, my “alumni son” status put me in the in-state pool at the time, and at the time, I had no need to sweat admissions in Charlottesville. (Today might be a different story. Don’t let your kids apply to just two schools, especially if they’re both about as good as schools get.)

pre-college-rotate

A few days after this photo, four people in this photo returned to college, and three left to start their freshman years. The dude in the Duke shirt was in the latter group.

Thirty years after that first impression, I still love my school. But it’s not without reservation. Duke, to me, is a bit like a family member who’s sometimes a little embarrassing, sometimes a little arrogant. And I know I didn’t fully live up to my part of the relationship.

I met people I treasure to this day. I knew talented athletes. Brilliant musicians. People who opened my eyes to a wider world than I saw in my wonderful but not particularly diverse high school.

Academically, I could’ve done better. And Duke could’ve done better — better advice, better teaching. Yes, I said better teaching.

So take this as a cautionary tale of sorts. Students have to be better than I was at taking charge. You can’t count on advisors to get you where you should be, next semester or after graduation.

IMG_1610

18th birthday. GPA at the time: 2.75. Still have the shirt, but it’s safe to say it doesn’t fit.

Let’s take a look …

Freshman year, first semester

The University Writing Course was required. It was a joke. I had a history grad student as a teacher, and when I misread the instructions on an early assignment, she clearly marked me as an idiot. She gave contradictory criticisms of my next several assignments, then let me off the hook with a C-minus. I’m still tempted to dedicate a book to her.

Aside from that, I took a buffet approach to picking classes:

  • Astronomy was a good science class you can’t take in high school.
  • Intro to Art History wasn’t one of my first choices, and I stunk at it. Literally — I signed up for a P.E. course, Racquetball/Badminton/Squash, and had to immediately race to catch a bus from the West Campus athletic facilities to East Campus, where we sat in a dark room looking at slides.

The class that changed the trajectory of the next four years was Fundamentals of Music Theory. I had no intention of majoring in music, and in those days, Duke didn’t have “minors.” But I’d always had an interest in music theory, and I wasn’t scared off by the realization that it had “lab” sessions — in addition to the three theory-related meetings each week, we had two musicianship sessions, where we did a lot of ear training. (Another freshman turned up to the first class and admitted he signed up thinking it would be easy. He dropped it.) I loved all of it. I loved the people in my class. I loved the professor, Rodney Wynkoop, who is still at Duke conducting the Chorale and the Chapel Choir. I decided I would stick with it next semester. Getting my lone A of the semester didn’t hurt.

I also got a quarter-credit for Jazz Ensemble, which wasn’t a fun experience. I quickly realized I knew nothing about actual jazz, and I was attempting to play tenor sax parts on a bass clarinet. While auditioning for Jazz Ensemble, I asked an aging man where I could find a string bass. Turns out he was Paul Bryan, the Wind Symphony conductor, and I was immediately recruited into the group, though I didn’t sign up for course credit.

I had stretched myself too thinly. I resolved not to do that the next semester. I had four AP credits — one English, two American history, one calculus — so there was no need to pile on the classes.

Freshman year, second semester

I flushed everything from my writing course out of my head and went back to my high school writing style for a freshman seminar, Comedy: Theory and Performance, taught by a professor emeritus in the drama department. It worked. I got an A-minus.

I also sailed through Tonal Harmony, the next class in the music sequence. A B-plus in Intro to Philosophy wasn’t too discouraging, so I had a pretty good sense of the two majors I’d aim to complete.

My Calculus teacher barely spoke English and didn’t fully prepare us for the exam. I was a calculus wizard in high school and got a 5 on the AP test. This class? C.

I’d also settled on my extracurricular activities. Jazz Ensemble was out, but I happily stayed in Wind Symphony. I was also drafted into the pit orchestra for a couple of Hoof n Horn musicals, playing woodwinds and bass. Second semester, I also bounded up the steps in the Flowers building to The Chronicle’s office for the first time. I had no idea how much that would change my life.

And I’d picked my home for the next three years — a selective (but not that selective) East Campus dorm called Brown House, where I would hang out with a laid-back group of people who leaned toward the “artsy” side and had a colorful mix of religions.

dumb

Added one more activity for sophomore year only. Wish I’d done it all four years, but …

Sophomore year, first semester

Why didn’t I major in history? Because Germany: 30 Years War-1871 killed me. I struggled to a B-minus.

I was also knocking out some graduation requirements with a solid B in Advanced Intermediate French and an easy A in Computer Science Fundamentals, where the professor was terrified because he was teaching Pascal to liberal arts majors, including a couple of basketball players in my lab. I remember no Pascal, though the thought processes probably helped me pick up other coding down the road, and very little French.

Modal Counterpoint is the organic chemistry of the music major. We hated it, but it was kind of a bonding experience. And I finally took the quarter-credit for Wind Symphony.

Sophomore year, second semester

What possessed me to take Endurance Swimming? The joy of diving into a frigid pool, where I felt icicles forming in my hair every time I stopped for breath? Yikes.

Everything else was geared toward setting me toward my majors. I doubled up in music, taking Tonal Counterpoint (blech) and Composition (humbling, though I met Philip Glass and wrote at least one piece worth saving) on top of Wind Symphony. I jumped into History of Ancient Philosophy. And I was calling myself pre-law, maybe, so I took the American Political System poli sci class, which was worthwhile if a little tedious.

The grades were all in the B/B-plus range, but they were OK given that I was still finding my way. And I was spending a lot of time at The Chronicle office and with an oboe player from Wind Symphony, who was coincidentally staying at Duke for the summer.

I also wanted a job for the summer, and it was tough to find one back home in Athens. So I walked into the library and met a nice woman who walked me down to the Newspapers and Periodicals room, where a charismatic 30-ish woman chatted with me and offered me a job. I called home and told them I could knock out a couple more classes, earn some money and get in the swing of things at The Chronicle. Good deal.

Summer between sophomore and junior years

Halcyon days. Walking from Central Campus apartments to my classes on Socialism and Communism (first session — and no, it wasn’t a how-to, just a basic history) and Logic (second session — easy A in my philosophy major), going to work in the library, then hanging around The Chronicle. A few Hoof n Horn folks also put on a production of Godspell in Duke Gardens and brought me in to play guitar, which was more fun than I could imagine. I liked the library job so much that I took a weekly shift for the next year as well.

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One advantage of living on unfashionable East Campus — it was easy to get a single room by junior year. For Millennials: That thing on top of the shelves is a “stereo.” That’s how we listened to music in those days. Athenians, note the Rocky’s Pizza sticker.

Junior year, first semester

Poor planning on my part left me taking a strange collection of classes. I realized I needed to take a year of half-credit performance class for my music major. The Wind Symphony had converted me to Percussion, so I signed up for that. But I was a half-credit short of a full load. Some Chronicle people were in a program in which they took reduced loads, but it was too late for me to get into that. Rather than take an overload, I added a P.E. class — Racquetball — even though I had already taken two P.E. classes and couldn’t count another toward my graduation requirements. (Between AP and summer classes, I was way ahead, anyway.)

I knocked out another science requirement, and please don’t make fun of me for it. It was Chemistry and Society, the broad overview of chemistry rather than the intense class-and-lab course that most freshmen took. I enjoyed it, and I got a lot more out of it than I would’ve gotten out of a lab. And, yeah, I got an easy A.

Along with Music History I (lots of chanting, with Bach not yet on the horizon), I sailed to straight As … except in philosophy, where History of Modern Philosophy kicked my butt. I was fine with Descartes and Hume. I don’t understand Kant to this day.

Junior year, second semester

I somehow convinced a couple of people to form a percussion ensemble with me, which counted as a quarter-credit for Chamber Music. That, Wind Symphony and Percussion added up to a whole credit.

Music History II was pleasant and easy. But my philosophy courses were problematic. Philosophy of Law beat my pre-law inclinations out of me, though I would’ve earned better than the B-minus I got if I hadn’t spent my entire “reading period” desperately trying to get through Symbolic Logic, which was a math class disguised as a philosophy class. I should’ve been suspicious when only one other philosophy major was in the class. I have no idea how I managed a C-plus. By all rights, I should’ve failed. I had no idea what I was doing, and I just wanted to race out of class and get to The Chronicle in time for the daily budget meeting.

By this point, The Chronicle was my life. I spent junior year as the arts editor, but I did much more — “CE2” shifts (the night editor who does the final checks), sports writing, Editorial Board, etc.

I certainly wasn’t a candidate to go to grad school in philosophy. I no longer had any interest in law school. The music department would’ve written me a reference to go to any grad school I wanted, but I just couldn’t see that path. Besides, I was best suited to be the next PDQ Bach (sort of the Weird Al of classical), and the world really didn’t need more than one. Journalism was going to be my career.

Summer between junior and senior years

First session: Breezed through Introductory Psychology, worked at The Chronicle and the library, roomed with my buddy Matt. We played guitars and talked about forming a band called Limbic System.

Second session: Struggled in Organismal/Environmental Biology. I can only imagine my biochemist father seeing that C-plus and shaking his head. Maybe I was just so focused on The Chronicle that nothing else mattered. Maybe the problem was that Matt went home, and in his place, I got a roommate who threw parties in our apartment for his stoner buddies and kids from the Precollege Program.

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My desk at The Chronicle, with recruitment flyers for my precious magazine Currents hanging by my head. The business manager tried to kill the magazine at the end of the year, scheduling a meeting when he knew I’d be in class. I wrote a blistering letter. The magazine stayed, eventually morphing into Towerview. You’re welcome, Chronicle staffers today!

Senior year, first semester

I was editor of Currents, The Chronicle’s magazine, and I was approved for an underload this time. But all I needed to graduate was to finish my majors. I once again combined Percussion, Wind Symphony and Chamber Music into a full credit. Music History III covered the golden age of classical music — how’d I only get a B-plus? But I got through a senior-and-grad-student seminar on Plato with a good A-minus, shaking off the intimidation of grad students examining the original Greek.

Then things changed. Chronicle editor Matt Sclafani (not the Matt I roomed with in the summer) was diagnosed with leukemia. He would take a leave of absence. I ran for election to replace him for spring semester but wound up instead as the managing editor. That still qualified me to drop to part time. My parents were thrilled to learn their tuition bill for my last semester would be cut in half.

Senior year, second semester

It’s easy to forget from this historical vantage point, but the Class of 1991 spent its last semester legitimately worried about being sent to war. The Gulf War was ramping up, and we all thought this was our Korea or Vietnam. We compared notes on the draft (Matt Sclafani, who maintained a sense of humor even as leukemia took his life the next year, chortled that cancer made him exempt) and fretted for our futures.

That fear, along with my futility in finding a girlfriend or a job, added a lot of stress to what otherwise was a great time. I was thoroughly enjoying my last semester at The Chronicle — I was the CE2 the night Duke won its first national hoops championship. Academically, I just needed one class in each of my majors. The music major required yet another semester of music history — Music History IV (the weird 20th century stuff). Then I united my two majors in Philosophy of Music with the great professor Ben Ward, doing some terrific academic work to go out with a bang. A-minus in each class, nearly pulling me up to cum laude status.

Over the summer, I found a girlfriend and a job! I was thrilled to be a grown-up making $400 a week. And I was done with school.

Or so I thought. A few years later, I saw a couple of ads for a part-time grad program at Duke. I knew Duke had added some journalism classes to the 1-2 they had (neither of which I took) while I was an undergrad, and I still fancied myself an intellectual of sorts. So why not go back and get a masters in liberal studies?

The work was harder than I anticipated. But I loved it. And I filled in a few gaps in my academic background.

Grad school

Spring 1996: Ecology and Society, in a building that didn’t exist when I was an undergrad. Learned a lot about the environment and got an “E” (excellent, the top grade).

Summer 1996: Culture, Identity and Education. At long last, my first sociology-ish class. Different way of looking at things.

Fall 1996: Politics and the Media, an undergrad course populated by a whole lot of clueless seniors. I marveled at how much I’d grown since then.

Spring 1997: Political Economy of Development. Econ! And sociology. I did some research comparing Microsoft and Rupert Murdoch. I gained a big fear of the latter.

Summer 1997: Voices from the Past, a class on oral history. Great experience for a journalist.

Fall 1997: Global Environmental Politics, taught by an actual Communist. I felt like Jesse Helms in that classroom, but I still learned a bit.

Spring 1998: American Culture and Public Policy. I think this was the class in which I wrote the paper on letters to the editor, which was a trip. Duke doesn’t officially record classes above “A” for undergrads or “E” for grad students, but my transcript here shows an “E+.”

Then it got tricky. I was engaged. I moved to Northern Virginia, a bit of a commute from Duke. But we had this thing called “the Internet” that made it slightly easier for me to communicate with people. Besides, I had made contact with a professor who had been teaching journalism classes in the public policy department — Susan Tifft — and she lived in New York. She was willing to do an independent study with me (History of Objectivity in American Journalism) and be my advisor for my thesis. I finished in 2000 with a couple more Es on my transcripts. And I miss Susan, who passed away a few years later, far too young.

The grad school didn’t compute an official GPA, but if you convert the “E” and “G” grades to A and B, I finished with a 3.7. Not bad.

So what would I do differently?

Academically, I got more from nine grad-school classes than I did from my 38.75 undergraduate credits. Part of that is my own self-confidence in figuring out how to choose classes and how to do research. I would not have been able to write what I’ve written in the past 15 years without my grad-school experience.

But what went wrong in my undergrad years?

My academic advising wasn’t great. I wish someone would’ve pointed out a few things — say, that Symbolic Logic required more of a math background than I had.

My career advising was a joke. They had no idea how to break into journalism. I discovered late in my senior year that a lot of information about applying to CNN and such places was kept at the poli sci department.

A Duke degree goes farther in journalism today than it did back then. The public policy department built up a journalism program that gives students a bit of academic substance and a few connections. Dukies have done well in the Internet age, landing jobs that didn’t exist when I graduated. And a Duke connection did help me once — a fellow Dukie mentioned my name when ESPN was looking for people to cover the Women’s World Cup in Germany, and I’m forever grateful.

I’m still not sure I’d recommend a journalism career to any college student today. But if you really want one, Duke isn’t a bad place to go.

A few things I wish I’d done differently:

  1. Picked ONE major. And probably neither philosophy nor music. Philosophy isn’t a bad major at all. It trains your brain to deal with complex thought. I’m better off for taking some of those classes. But I just wasn’t good enough at it to major in it.
    Maybe public policy? Maybe history, though I struggled to do the research in the German history class I took.
  2. Taken one more French class to try, once and for all, to master it.
  3. Taken a religion course or two.
  4. Taken some sort of econ/business class that grounded me in the basics of accounting, which would have helped for some of the boards on which I’ve served.

A few possibilities I wish my advisors had suggested:

  1. Take stats, not a second semester of calculus. Much broader application to anyone not going into engineering.
  2. A minor in music. As far as I remember, no such thing existed in the 80s and 90s.

What did I gain?

I use a “batting weights” analogy to justify a liberal arts major. A baseball player swings on deck with a weight on his bat, so when he steps up to the plate without the weight, the bat feels lighter and easier to swing. My classes dealt with topics far more complex than anything I encounter in work.

So my undergrad years weren’t a total waste. And sometimes, you have to fail. (Well, get a C.) You have to learn your limitations and weaknesses. I certainly did that.

But what I treasure about my undergrad days is the interaction with so many smart, talented people. I think if you gave The Chronicle’s staff from my day a couple of years of professional experience, then gathered them back together, you’d have a hell of a newspaper staff.

I had hallway discussions on religion in which a Muslim, an agnostic, an evangelical and an Anglican (me) found common ground. New Yorkers and Southerners dispelled their stereotypes about each other.

The Internet is great. It’s a giant library, sans the musty stacks with grad students of questionable hygiene roaming around. But it can’t replicate that experience.

I made bad decisions. I didn’t get everything out of the experience that I could have. It went by too quickly.

And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.